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Catholic child sex abuse scandal grips Europe

The Capuchin order in Delemont hit the headlines in 2008 after a suspected paedophile priest sought refuge there


As the child sex abuse scandal in Europe widens, doubts have been raised over whether an expected statement from Pope Benedict XVI will help heal the wounds.

After Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Poland, 70 new cases of abuse are reportedly under investigation in Switzerland. In addition, this week a priest in the eastern Chur diocese resigned after admitting to abusing children.

The “deeply concerned” pope is due to publish an unprecedented pastoral letter to Irish Catholics on Saturday which he hopes will help "repentance, healing and renewal”.

This follows an escalating child abuse crisis in Ireland involving more than 15,000 children and cover-ups by church leaders from the 1930s to 1990s.

While some Vatican-watchers say the pope’s letter will mark a turning point and break the official silence over cases of paedophilia and abuse involving clergy and staff, Edmund Arens, professor of theology at Lucerne University, feels it is unlikely to go far enough.

“I think the pope should issue a mea culpa on behalf of the church,” he told

“It’s high time the church admitted its guilt in such crimes, in covering them up and in preventing victims from going to court.”

But Arens doubted the pontiff would do so, as he has a “supernatural, idealistic” view of the Church, he said.

“The Church is losing its credibility,” he added. “There is a significant contradiction between what it teaches – love, solidarity and compassion – and what it practices.”

German crisis

Arens’s criticism echoes an attack on the church leadership by dissident Swiss theologian Hans Küng.

In an interview published in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung on Wednesday, Küng said the pope should apologise personally, as "no other person within the church had seen so many cases of abuse pass through their office”.

Joseph Ratzinger [the pope] was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 24 years – an office that has authority over church doctrine and jurisdiction for various matters including sexual misconduct of clergy.

“Protecting their priests seems to have counted more for the bishops than protecting children,” said Küng.

After the scandals in Ireland last month, more reports have emerged over recent months of abuse at church-run schools and institutions in Germany, including one linked to the Regensburg choir run by the pope’s brother, Georg Ratzinger, from 1964 to 1994. Some 300 victims have come forward since January.

In a letter to the German Die Welt newspaper on Thursday the head of Germany’s Catholic Church, Robert Zollitsch, insisted the pope had repeatedly made clear how deeply appalled he was by the sexual abuse scandals.

And last weekend the Vatican too defended the pontiff vigorously. A spokesman denounced “aggressive” efforts by the media to personally implicate the pope in the unfolding crisis in his homeland and in cover-ups.

Tip of the iceberg?

Switzerland has also been hit by the widening scandal.

On Friday the curate for the Chur diocese announced that it was looking into ten possible sex abuse cases. These are in addition to 60 reports of sexual abuse by priests reported by a Swiss Catholic Church official last weekend.

Those allegations were reported to the Swiss Bishops Conference, which is investigating them. The Church will not press charges but will advise victims to do so.

On Wednesday a priest from the Chur diocese resigned after confessing to sexually abusing children in the 1970s. He also admitted abuses in parts of neighbouring Austria and Germany that belong to the same diocese, and reported himself to local police.

Andrea Hauri, a child protection officer with the Swiss Foundation for the Protection of the Child, believed this number was just the tip of the iceberg.

“The real figures are likely to be much higher as abuse of children is frequent, not only in religious circles but also in school environments,” she noted, adding that the current debate in the media could encourage more people to come forward.

Germans, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, have been particularly vocal about the scandal in their homeland. This contrasts with Switzerland, where the response has been muted with religious leaders seemingly still trying to come to terms with the scandal.

“The Swiss are very hesitant, moderate and calm,” said Arens. “They treat all things with great secrecy.”

Hauri agreed: "We don't know what goes on inside the Church.”

But Walter Müller, spokesman for the Swiss Bishops Conference, defended the Swiss Catholic Church’s transparent victim-centred strategy towards child abuse cases.

“As shown by the recent [Chur] incident, as soon as it occurs the matter is immediately made public, the victim is listened to, helped and encouraged to file a police report,“ he told Swiss public television, adding that each diocese has contact points for victims and witnesses to come forward.

Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian Natalie Rickli felt it was a step in the right direction, but not enough.

“It’s not enough when you post a notice on the internet and start an advisory group but then leave it up to the victims to decide whether they want to file charges.”

Simon Bradley,

Vatican child abuse statistics

The Holy See's official prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna told the Italian bishops' newspaper Avvenire that the Vatican's disciplinary office had dealt with 3,000 cases of sexual misconduct since 2001, covering "crimes" committed over the last 50 years.

But only about 300 of these involved "paedophilia in the true sense of the term" meaning abuse base on attraction to prepubescent children. About 60 per cent of the cases concerned adolescents and the rest involved heterosexual relations.

A full trial had been completed for 20 per cent of the cases and only 10 per cent had resulted in the pope dismissing the offender from the priesthood.

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Catholic Church sex abuse scandals

United States: The paedophile priest scandal first erupted in Boston in 2002 when many leaders of the archdiocese were found to have moved priests who abused minors to new parishes instead of defrocking them or reporting them to authorities. The scandal then spread to almost every US Catholic diocese involving 4,400 priests and 11,000 children, abused between 1950 and 2002. It led to dozens of lawsuits, $2 billion in settlements and the defrocking, resignation and jailing of priests.

Ireland: three recent Irish government investigations documented child abuse and church cover-ups from the 1930s to 1990s involving priests and more than 15,000 children. Four bishops have offered their resignation and one resignation has been accepted.

Australia: Cases of abuse dating back to the 1970s and 80s have been reported recently. In Sydney the pope expressed his compassion for victims.

Canada: At the end of the 1980s hundreds of cases were reported. In 2002 the Catholic Church and state paid €700 million to victims.

Austria: In 1995 the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct.

France: A dozen priests are currently being prosecuted for paedophilia.

Germany: More than 100 reports of abuse have emerged at Catholic institutions, including one linked to the Regensburg choir run by the pope’s brother from 1964 to 1994.

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